Ashley René Lee has never been one to temper her desire to pursue what's just and right. An optimist with the belief there's always a lesson on the other side of adversity, she centers herself on four guiding principles: her faith, her wellness, being a great mother and wife, and showing up as the best family and community member she can.
Having relocated from Flint to Grand Rapids in the third grade, Lee says that both cities raised her, as she spent a generous amount of time in each due to her parent's divorce. The oldest of five, Lee is thankful to be from a large, beautiful and blended family.
Lee proudly gained her education through Grand Rapids Public Schools and speaks fondly of the many educators and mentors who took notice of her writing skills and encouraged her. She went on to study at GVSU where she majored in journalism and minored in African and African American studies, and saw her skill blossom further.
"I wrote for the student newspaper, and when they weren't covering what I felt was important in terms of race relations on campus, I started my own paper called Stand Up," said Lee, who'd also developed a long-standing freelance writing relationship with the Grand Rapids Press. "I got a cohort of other students who were interested, and looking back, it was really beautiful because we were building our portfolios and where opportunities didn't exist, we created our own."
More opportunities arose, including one to intern in New York City at Essence.
"Essence was really like the Black girl Bible, and as a little girl, I would see it on the coffee tables of my grandmother and aunt's houses and in the hair salon," Lee said. "The internship was the first time in my education and career where I was in a space full of women who looked like me. And it was just so empowering."
While Lee's initial plans to return to New York post-graduation had changed (thanks to the Great Recession), this became the time when Lee got her first taste of community-building work as a neighborhood coordinator through what's known today as LINC UP. Rebuilding trust was often part of her work, during a time when community tensions were high.
"I spent my days in church basements and neighborhood association offices, talking with and getting to meet people," Lee said, noticing a shift in her career when combining writing and community work. "The core of what I loved was storytelling and bringing people together. It started to open my eyes to other possibilities."
After a period of working in public relations in DC and earning her master's degree from Georgetown, Lee knew home was calling. She ended up in Lansing working at MSU, and met her husband, Ryann, who she married in 2017. When the opportunity for her to join the Grand Rapids Community Foundation arose that same year, Lee initially wasn't sure she was ready. Then, she recalled a bit of wisdom one of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters once shared:
"She reminded me of the saying: 'God doesn't call the qualified, He qualifies the called.'"
Today, as a West Michigan resident and GRCF Vice President of Strategic Communications, Lee is energized in the work the Foundation does, and finds fulfillment in seeing their efforts move the needle within the community as it relates to racial, social and economic justice. She recalled hearing then-longtime president Diana Sieger speak about the Foundation's North Star and commitment to an inclusive economy and thriving community.
"To hear an organization in West Michigan unapologetically name systemic racism as one of the biggest issues in the community that impacts us today and in the future was refreshing," Lee said. "The work we do isn't about checking boxes. It's an ongoing struggle. There's so much progress that's been made, but even more work that still needs to be done. I've had the opportunity to build an amazing team of folks who are equally committed to this work. And even though change is hard, I feel like I've been a part of really meaningful progress in this organization."
And we all have a role to play in advancing these efforts in our own lives.
"We can take steps toward equity by the decisions we make every day about who's at a table, ensuring we're not gatekeeping and that we're bringing others alongside us," Lee said. "Ask yourself, 'Are you holding space for folks who are different from you?' Examine where you can authentically open your heart and mind to be an advocate, mentor and sponsor for someone who may not have your privilege. If you want to be about it, be about it."
Lee admires and is inspired by the matriarchs of her family, having gained a better understanding of the weight they and she carry specifically as Black women.
"I look back and wonder, 'How did they do it all?' And while I never saw them break a sweat, I now understand the magnitude of their sacrifice," Lee said, urging other women to prioritize their wellness and define success for themselves. "Take care of yourself and don't let anyone define what success looks like for you. Really think about what makes you happy."
As someone who always knew she wanted to be a mother, Lee says her journey to motherhood provided a real shift in perspective, from struggling to conceive and suffering miscarriages to safely welcoming her daughter, Emery, in 2022.
"That journey really tested my faith," Lee said. "But I believe God wastes nothing. And so as hard as it is to talk about, I try to be open and share my story so other women, especially women who look like me, know they're not alone."
Looking toward the future, Lee hopes to live in the moments that matter and continue to grow, including with Peadbo, a software company that she co-founded with her brother that helps individuals build and manage their community of supporters.
A self-proclaimed extroverted introvert, Lee finds enjoyment and solace in reading, traveling, shopping, listening to live music and being close to the water.
"Get me a good bottle of wine and some good conversation with some close friends, and that's what it's about."
Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the Feb/Mar '24 issue of West Michigan Woman.
Photo Courtesy of Kelly Braman Photography.